The life of Cy Grant, the one-time ’50s matinee idol who became a cultural activist, poet and author, is being celebrated in a public archive for the first time.
Launched earlier this year by the London Metropolitan Archives, the project catalogues documents, manuscripts, photographs and films dating from the 1940s to 2010, the year Grant died at the age of 90 at his home at Jackson’s Lane, Highgate.
Volunteers are currently sifting through more than 20 boxes of uncatalogued items including letters, manuscripts, photographs and audio-visual material. Highlights in the collection include fan-mail, studio and film stills, films as well as minutes and papers relating to the Drum Arts and Concord festivals, two major projects Grant was involved with. Film screenings will take place at The British Film Institute and LMA. They will include A Man from the Sun, a 1956 film about the trials and tribulations of West Indian migrants in London.
With the help of an outreach programme involving workshops, school education packs, online resources and an exhibition, the aim is to raise awareness of Grant’s many achievements and inspire today’s younger generations.
“This project means a great deal to our family,” said Samantha Moxon, Grant’s daughter. “My dad’s dream was that the importance of his work should be recognised and never forgotten.”
Originally from Guyana and a flight lieutenant navigator for the RAF during the second world war, Grant became the first black face to appear regularly on TV in the 1950s when he sang the news in calypso on the daily topical show, Tonight.
Although he would go on to establish himself as a successful actor and a singer and songwriter, he became frustrated at the restricted opportunities facing black performers.
In 1974 he helped set up Drum Arts Centre to provide a springboard for black artistic talent. This saw plays by the likes of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka being performed at major venues, including the National Theatre.
Determined to steer his own career in a politically conscious direction, Grant began touring his one-man show of Aime Césaire’s celebration of black identity, Return To My Native Land, in 1977. He later became the driving force behind The Concord Festival Trust, which staged 22 nationwide festivals between 1981-1985 championing the cultural diversity of modern-day Britain.
A devotee of Taoism, Grant expressed his expansive worldview in his poetry and essays, and was author of a number of books including the 2007 Blackness and the Dreaming Soul: Race, Identity and Materialistic Paradigm.
He also wrote about his experiences as a German POW after his Lancaster Bomber was shot down over the Netherlands in A Member of the RAF of Indeterminate Race, the title taken from the caption that appeared below his picture in a German newspaper reporting the story of his capture in 1943. Grant later helped to set up the Caribbean Aircrew Archive as a permanent record of West Indian volunteers like himself who served in the RAF.
In 2014, Cy Grant’s family deposited the Cy Grant Archive at the City of London’s London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) and a year later, the Cy Grant Trust, LMA and Windrush Foundation formed a partnership to oversee the archive project.
The archive was launched in May and speakers included Zimbabwean actor John Mapondera, with whom Grant founded the Drum Arts Centre, and the educationalist and activist Gus John who worked with him during the 1980s on the Concord festivals.
The project will run until spring 2017, with a final celebratory event to launch the archive catalogue, which will be available next year.
For project updates and further information visit the Cy Grant website at www.cygrant.com/.
This article originally appeared in the New Journal Enterprises group of newspapers on August 18, 2016